Fall 2019 > Special Feature

Frontiers for Fundamental Physics

The Big Bang Theory has a special meaning for Prof. George SMOOT, IAS TT & WF Chao Foundation Professor and Chair Professor of Physics at HKUST. However, this is not just because he has appeared as a guest star twice in the popular TV comedy of that name. Rather, Smoot, along with John C. MATHER of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics “for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation,” which cemented the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang explains how the universe began as a very hot dense state some 13.7 billion years ago, then cataclysmically expanded into the existing, observable universe today.


After being anointed a Nobel Laureate, heaps of invitations for talks and events flocked in from around the world. Yet becoming famous overnight has not dimmed Smoot’s passion for basic research and fundamental physics. “Fundamental physics addresses some key questions of nature: What are we made of? What are the fundamental forces and matter in nature? What is the origin of our universe? These questions, which range from subatomic to cosmological scales, are intimately connected. Although the key problems in fundamental physics are few, they are some of the most challenging in science,” said Smoot, who has been working on a project to analyze data from the residue of the Big Bang to understand the early universe and its conditions.



The Center for Fundamental Physics (CFP), under the directorship of Smoot, was established at HKUST as a platform for researchers in the field of particle theory and cosmology to collaborate and explore four specific areas of fundamental physics, namely string theory, particle physics, cosmology, and quantum optics for astrophysics and cosmology. Other core members who form the pillars of CFP include Prof. Andrew G. COHEN, Director of the IAS, Lam Woo Foundation Professor and Chair Professor of Physics; Prof. Henry TYE, IAS Professor and Chair Professor of Physics; Prof. LIU Tao, Associate Professor of Physics; and Prof. WANG Yi, Assistant Professor of Physics. Alongside the HKUST faculty, there is a team of over 20 fellows and graduate students whose research spans a wide range of frontier topics in fundamental physics.



Reaching Out


As a strong believer in popularizing science, Smoot thinks that scientists should look beyond themselves and realize that they have the social responsibility for promoting science and engaging with the public.

In the past six months, Smoot has travelled to several continents to share his specialized knowledge and research expertise at various conferences, including the Starmus Festival held in Zurich, Switzerland, which attracted over 3,000 worldwide researchers this year, and the SciencEkaitza event in Pamplona, Spain. Smoot was also one of the 39 Nobel Laureates who took part in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting held in Germany this July. Joining forces with John C. Mather, he gave a talk titled “From the Big Bang to Intelligent Life” and participated in a panel discussion of the topic “The Dark Side of the Universe.”

“Being able to exchange ideas and interact with the next generation of leading scientists, like those who attended the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, is always a meaningful experience,” Smoot said. “I think scientists like me have a duty to promote science education, to share and let the community know what is happening. We hope that our research at HKUST could help further enhance Hong Kong’s capabilities and visibility in the research area of fundamental physics.”

In 2017, Smoot took up the directorship of the Center for Fundamental Physics (CFP), which was established at HKUST as a platform for researchers in the field of particle theory and cosmology to collaborate and explore four specific areas of fundamental physics, namely string theory, particle physics, cosmology, and quantum optics for astrophysics and cosmology. Other core members who form the pillars of CFP include Prof. Andrew G. COHEN, Director of the IAS, Lam Woo Foundation Professor and Chair Professor of Physics; Prof. Henry TYE, IAS Professor and Chair Professor of Physics; Prof. LIU Tao, Associate Professor of Physics; and Prof. WANG Yi, Assistant Professor of Physics. Alongside the HKUST faculty, there is a team of over 20 fellows and graduate students whose research spans a wide range of frontier topics in fundamental physics.

Starmus Festival
SciencEkaitza
The 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Quantum Optics for Astrophysics and Cosmology Laboratory


Nearly all astronomical observation is based upon the interpretation of subtleties in the light detected from sources in outer space. Therefore, it is no surprise that the CFP has recently added the field of quantum optics for astrophysics and cosmology to its range of interests. Quantum optics, the study of how photons interact with atoms and molecules, is tipped to become another channel of invaluable information about the universe.


Earlier this year, the Quantum Optics for Astrophysics and Cosmology Laboratory under the CFP was officially opened at HKUST.

One project at the laboratory is the development of a pioneering fast detector camera using a new approach to quantum optics incorporating the silicon photomultiplier (SiPM). This quantum optical technology, which was once used only in particle physics, can record previously undetectable signals from billions of light years away. The camera is aimed to help solve unanswered questions in astrophysics and cosmology, such as how light originates and varies around black holes, in the hope of deciphering the information emitted from distant sources.


(From left to right) Prof. Henry TYE, the then Acting Director of IAS, Prof. WANG Yang, Dean of Science, Prof. George SMOOT, Prof. Penger TONG, Head and Chair Professor of Physics, and Prof. WANG Yi, Assistant Professor of Physics of HKUST witness the opening of the Quantum Optics for Astrophysics and Cosmology Laboratory.


Mr. Albert LAU Wai-Kit , who obtained his BSc degree in Physics and Computer Science from HKUST last year, is one of the PhD students in the research group at the CFP currently working on the development of this fast detector camera under Smoot’s supervision. He has been working closely with researchers from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, the University of California, Berkeley in the US, and the University of Paris in France to develop a silicon-based single-photon sensor array for detection of possible ultra-fast astronomical and cosmological signals, with a focus on ultra-fast astronomical events, including the optical counter-parts of fast radio bursts. This summer, Lau presented his research at the Energetic Cosmos Laboratory (ECL) Conference “Exploring the Energetic Universe 2019” organized by Nazarbayev University together with Smoot, who is the Founder and Director of the ECL.


“The camera that we are now building will have an impact not only in the areas of cosmology and astrophysics, but also on materials research and quantum communication,” Smoot explained. He went on to express his hope that “the new detectors and techniques will enable us to conduct large-scale surveys and analyses, helping us record the locations and properties of millions of galaxies to learn more about the history of the universe, distribution of matter, and formation of galaxies.”


Mr. Albert LAU Wai-Kit (front row middle) and other research postgraduate students of the CFP celebrate the laboratory opening.